The men who blazed the track
“And we only ride with the flowing tide
as we follow the blazed line back,
so we drink the toast of the vanguard host
And “The MEN who blazed the Track!””
Will Oglivie: “Saddle for a Throne”
Many roads and tracks we use today have been in existence for more than 140 years. The history of these tracks is itself a history of the great Aussie high country icons, which are the attraction of the experiences we provide.
The first recorded journey to the Bogong High Plains by a white man was by John Mitchell in 1843, who crossed the Murray River near Thurgoona and made his approach up the valley of the Kiewa River in the company of friendly aborigines.
Jim Brown and Johnny Wells, two skilled bushmen, first cut the track from the High Plains to the northeast along the spur, which leads north from Mt. Fainter towards Tawonga. They also pioneered the route that leads over Mt. Hotham into the Ovens Valley and this early track was much used in the early 1850s by gold miners travelling to the Omeo fields.
In those early days Jim Brown and Johnny Wells had the Bogong High Plains to themselves, and they visited every part of it naming most of the prominent features. Mt. Feathertop,The Fainter, The Niggerheads, The Razorback, Blowhard, Bucketty Plain, Rocky Valley, Pretty Valley, The Rocky Knobs and Mt. Jim were all named by the two stockmen. Local cattlemen went on to cut tracks up many of the access spurs to the lush summer pastures, many of which are still used today for the cattle musters.
The Victorian High Country was noted by Hume and Hovell in 1825, and explored by Strezlecki, thereafter travel along the Mitchell and Dargo Rivers and ascend Mt. Hotham. From there he explored the upper Mitta Mitta, Mueller’s Peak and Mt. Kosciusko, thereafter returning via Buchan, the Snowy River and South Gippsland to Melbourne. Thus by 1855 the whole central part of the Australian Alps had been botanically and geographically explored by this “solitary wanderer in the most perilous and lonely regions’ as he described himself. With little equipment he would set out on horseback, accompanied by only two packhorses.
Having actively promoted the extraction of gold in the rugged vastness of alpine Victoria, the Government found its aims hampered by lack of communications and transport routes. Accordingly it fitted out a track cutting expedition to provide permanent ways for commerce through the wild country, and appointed as leader Angus McMillan in 1861.
The expedition cut 220 miles of tracks during its twelve months’ existence, extending from the Wonnangatta to Dargo, over the Snowy Plains to the watershed of the Macalister and Moroka Rivers, and to the Barkly Range at the head of the Goulburn. Further tracks were cut from Dargo to Harrietville, from the Wellington to the Moroka and to the Macalister, and from the Jordan to Mt. Tamboritha.
McMillan carried on to cut the last track in the Dargo area alone, a sick and broken man, but determined to carry out his duties. The end came quickly. His packhorse missed its footing and rolled on him. Mortally crushed, he struggled towards Bairnsdale, but died in Gilleo’s pub at Iguana Creek on 18th. May 1865. Even the high country’s own bushranger played a role in opening the region to European settlement, treading many routes between Gippsland and the Murray as he gave the law the slip. In the course of his profession “Bogong Jack” pioneered numerous routes between Gippsland and the valleys of the northeast. Bogong Jack, whose real name was John Payne, was originally a drover concentrating on the mountain routes between Gippsland and Omeo. In the 1850’s he turned to cattle duffing and later to horse stealing which he found more profitable than droving.
The police eventually captured him but, as nothing could be proven, he was set free. He then retired to his hut near Mt. Fainter and soon after this was not seen again. Whether he turned to gold prospecting or whether he was murdered for the fortune he was supposed to have amassed whilst a bushranger, is not known. Dungey’s track takes its name from Detective Dungey who cut this route in his constant quest for cattle duffers in the 1860’s including Bogong Jack. As early as 1898, organised walks were conducted in the Bogongs. They must have been more like an expedition than a bushwalk. Large organised parties of those times tended to employ packhorses to carry their food, clothing and shelter, and invariably the use of packhorses meant the employment of a packer to manage them. A horse was generally counted sufficient to carry the needs of two walkers, and the packer, often a local cattleman, served as a guide for his party.
Maurice Harkins a member of the Melbourne Walking Club and later Director of Tourism in Victoria established the Skyline Tours under Railways management. These lasted from 1935 until World War 2, and were organised each Christmas for periods of a week to 10 days. They were horse riding and walking trips, provisioned and assisted by cattlemen, and were restricted to all-male parties, generally with a maximum of 25 members.
The trips were quite extensive. For example, the 1935 Skyline Tour started at Mansfield and journeyed towards Wangaratta via Mt. Cobbler, the King River Hut and Bennie’s homestead. All equipment, food, tents and saddles were provided and the initial charges were eight pound ten shillings (8/10/-) for walkers and twelve pound for riders.
The consistent theme running through this rich cultural history of the high country is the reliance on packhorse travel. The mode of transport we employ, the tracks and camps we use, and the types of gear we use are all a continuation of the tradition.